Samuel Floyd Jr. traces the origin of every black musical idiom to the traditional African ring dance. “Some people refer to it as a holy dance,” says Floyd, who heads the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. “Ring dances in Africa were simply spectacles in which participants stood in a ring and started to move that ring counterclockwise as the music and the drumming progressed. That ring was common in most parts of Africa, and when slaves were brought to this country that was one of the few things that they could continue to do–but without the drums, because they were banned in most places.
“The shuffling around in the ring, the hand clapping, the foot patting, the singing, the interjections, and all of that was a ritual in which Africans, from no matter what part of Africa, bonded on cultural grounds. . . . It even moved inside the churches. . . . The call and response came out of that ring.”
In his book The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History From Africa to the United States, Floyd maintains that African musical and cultural traits not only survived slavery but continue to shape black music today–even though musicians may be unaware of the connection.
“Most young people today really have no sense of that history,” he says. “It’s so important for [black] music to enter curriculums where it can be studied, because everybody’s so divorced from what went on before. Even Duke Ellington, who only died in the 1970s, most young people today don’t know who he is. So it’s very hard for young people to see those connections and that continuity.”
To remedy that situation, Floyd helped start the Center for Black Music Research in 1983. “We have a library and archive of materials on black music subjects, and these holdings range all the way from folk music and blues to contemporary concert music by black composers. And they embrace spirituals, gospel, R & B, jazz–the whole gamut.” The center also publishes journals and newsletters, hosts conferences, and maintains two performing groups: the Black Music Repertory Ensemble, a chamber orchestra that resurrects neglected or little-known pieces by black composers, and Ensemble Kalinda, which performs pop and traditional music from Latin America and the Caribbean. “We know that the scholarship we do, and publishing scholarly journals, is not going to reach the public,” he says. “So we try to put the results of our research in musical form and present it in public concerts.”
For The Power of Black Music, Floyd researched black literary theory, which allowed him to trace specific musical traits to tropes and literary devices commonly used in African-American folktales about heroes like the Signifying Monkey and Br’er Rabbit. These trickster figures, adapted directly from African mythology, outwit and overcome stronger, more powerful enemies. Floyd likens the one-upmanship common in the telling of folktales to the interplay of musicians in black music. “The same things happen with pure musical signifying, the irony that you find, the signifying figures, the metaphors,” he says. “The problem is, these things are very difficult to discuss in the abstract, because in one sense you’re talking about verbal and literary meaning, and then on the other hand you’re talking about something that you cannot explain in words–you’ve got to hear it.”
Floyd will discuss and sign copies of The Power of Black Music this Tuesday at 7 at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th. Admission is free. Call 684-1300 for more information.